Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The court system, however, was subjected to political influence, and judges were appointed “in accordance with religious criteria.”
The supreme leader appoints the head of the judiciary. The head of the judiciary, members of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general are clerics. International observers continued to criticize the lack of independence of the country’s judicial system and judges and maintained that trials disregarded international standards of fairness.
According to the constitution and law, a defendant has the right to a fair trial, to be presumed innocent until convicted, to have access to a lawyer of his or her choice, and to appeal convictions in most cases that involve major penalties. These rights were frequently not upheld.
Panels of judges adjudicate trials in civil and criminal courts. Human rights activists reported trials in which authorities appeared to have determined the verdicts in advance, and defendants did not have the opportunity to confront their accusers or meet with lawyers. For journalists and defendants charged with crimes against national security, the law restricts the choice of attorneys to a government-approved list.
When postrevolutionary statutes do not address a situation, the government advises judges to give precedence to their knowledge and interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Under this method judges may find a person guilty based on their own “divine knowledge.”
The constitution does not provide for the establishment or the mandate of the revolutionary courts, which were created pursuant to the former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s edict immediately following the 1979 revolution, with a sharia judge appointed as the head of the courts. They were intended as a temporary emergency measure to try high-level officials of the deposed monarchy and purge threats to the regime. The courts, however, became institutionalized and continue to operate in parallel to the criminal justice system. Human rights groups and international observers often identified the revolutionary courts, which are generally responsible for hearing the cases of political prisoners, as routinely holding grossly unfair trials without due process, handing down predetermined verdicts, and rubberstamping executions for political purposes. These unfair practices reportedly occur during all stages of criminal proceedings in revolutionary courts, including the initial prosecution and pretrial investigation, first instance trial, and review by higher courts.
The IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence reportedly determine many aspects of revolutionary court cases. Most of the important political cases are referred to a small number of branches of the revolutionary courts, whose judges often have negligible legal training and are not independent.
During the year human rights groups and international media noted the absence of procedural safeguards in criminal trials, and courts routinely admitted as evidence confessions made under duress or torture. UNSR Rehman expressed concerns regarding allegations of confessions extracted by torture and a lack of due process or a fair trial, including in cases of persons arrested for participating in the 2019 protests.
The Special Clerical Court is headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, overseen by the supreme leader, and charged with investigating alleged offenses committed by clerics and issuing rulings based on an independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. As with the revolutionary courts, the constitution does not provide for the Special Clerical Court, which operates outside the judiciary’s purview. Clerical courts were used to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Official statistics regarding the number of citizens imprisoned for their political beliefs were not available. According to United for Iran, as of September 23, at least 550 prisoners of conscience were held in the country, including those jailed for their religious beliefs.
The government often charged political dissidents with vague crimes, such as “antirevolutionary behavior,” “corruption on earth,” “siding with global arrogance,” “waging war against God,” and “crimes against Islam.” Prosecutors imposed strict penalties on government critics for minor violations.
The political crimes law defines a political crime as an insult against the government, as well as “the publication of lies.” Political crimes are those acts “committed with the intent of reforming the domestic or foreign policies of Iran,” while those with the intent to damage “the foundations of the regime” are considered national security crimes. Courts and the Public Prosecutor’s Office retain responsibility for determining the nature of the crime.
The political crimes law grants the accused certain rights during arrest and imprisonment. Political criminals should be held in detention facilities separate from ordinary criminals. Political criminals should also be exempt from wearing prison uniforms, not subject to rules governing repeat offenses, not subject to extradition, and exempt from solitary confinement unless judicial officials deem it necessary. Political criminals also have the right to see and correspond with immediate family regularly and to access books, newspapers, radio, and television.
Many of the law’s provisions were not implemented, and the government continued to arrest and charge students, journalists, lawyers, political activists, women’s activists, artists, and members of religious minorities with “national security” crimes that do not fall under the political crimes law. Political prisoners were also at greater risk of torture and abuse in detention. They were often mixed with the general prison population, and former prisoners reported that authorities often threatened political prisoners with transfer to criminal wards, where attacks by fellow prisoners were more likely. Human rights activists and international media reported cases of political prisoners confined with accused and convicted violent criminals, being moved to public wards in cases of overcrowding, and having temporary furloughs inequitably applied during the COVID-19 pandemic (see section 1.c., Physical Conditions). The government often placed or “exiled” political prisoners to prisons in remote provinces far from their families as a means of reprisal, denied them correspondence rights and access to legal counsel, and held them in solitary confinement for long periods. The government reportedly held some detainees in prison for years on unfounded charges of sympathizing with real or alleged terrorist groups.
In March, as reprisal for signing an open letter accusing the government of routinely denying medical care to prisoners, authorities transferred Maryam Akbari-Monfared from Evin Prison to a prison 124 miles away from her family. Akbari-Monfared had been imprisoned for nearly 12 years for seeking justice for her siblings, who were disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret in 1988. Authorities originally tried and convicted Akbari-Monfared on charges of supporting the banned MEK opposition group in 2010, on the offense of “waging war against God.”
Lawyers who defended political prisoners were often arrested, detained, and subjected to excessive sentences and punishments for engaging in regular professional activities. The government continued to imprison lawyers and others affiliated with the Defenders of Human Rights Center advocacy group.
The government issued travel bans on some former political prisoners, barred them from working in their occupations for years after incarceration, and imposed internal exile on some. During the year authorities occasionally gave political prisoners suspended sentences and released them on bail with the understanding that renewed political activity would result in their return to prison. The government did not permit international humanitarian organizations or UN representatives access to political prisoners.
On November 16, authorities rearrested human rights defender and journalist Narges Mohammadi to serve a sentence handed down in May of 30 months in prison and 80 lashes for alleged propaganda, defamation, and “rebellion” crimes. She was arrested while attending a ceremony in Karaj to honor a protester killed during protests in 2019 and reportedly placed in solitary confinement in Evin Prison. Mohammadi had been previously arrested in 2015, convicted in 2016, and given a 16-year sentence for “propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and establishing the illegal Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty organization. After her release in October 2020, Mohammadi led a high-profile lawsuit by civil rights activists against the use by authorities of prolonged and routine solitary confinement in prisons, describing it as a form of “white torture.” She also publicly detailed via a video message in February how Evin Prison warden Gholamreza Ziaei had beaten her for participating in a peaceful sit-in inside the prison in 2019. During her previous confinement, authorities repeatedly denied her telephone contact with her family and appropriate medical treatment following her contraction of COVID-19 in 2020, as well as treatment related to a major operation she underwent in 2019.
According to CHRI and IHR, in March authorities transferred activist Atena Daemi from Evin Prison to Rasht Central Prison, far from her family. As of August 21, Daemi was on an indefinite hunger strike to protest the frequent and unjustified restrictions on prisoners’ telephone use rights. In 2020 authorities arbitrarily extended her five-year prison sentence by two years, shortly before she was due to be released after serving the full term on “national security” charges and for insulting the supreme leader. The additional two-year sentence reportedly stemmed from Daemi singing a song in prison honoring executed prisoners.
CHRI reported in July that authorities had sentenced at least three human rights attorneys to unjust prison sentences. Branch four of the Revolutionary Court of Mashhad, Judge Mansouri presiding, sentenced Javad Alikordi, a defense attorney and law professor, to prison for “creating and managing a channel on the Telegram messaging application with the intention of overthrowing the state” (six and one-half years), “insulting the supreme leader” (one and one-half years), and “propaganda against the state” (eight months). Alikordi was imprisoned in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad. He also received a two-year ban on teaching, a two-year ban on traveling abroad, and a two-year ban on membership in political and social groups.
On July 13, the Tehran Revolutionary Court reimposed on defense attorney Amirsalar Davoudi a sentence of 30 years and 111 lashes that had been revoked by the Supreme Court. Davoudi, also imprisoned for running a Telegram channel, was required to serve 15 years of the sentence. As of November 17, Davoudi was temporarily free on bail.
Mohammad Najafi, a defense attorney imprisoned in 2018 for speaking out about the death of a protester who died in police custody, was released on medical furlough in February, according to United for Iran. He was then ordered in July to serve 10 years behind bars on new charges of “propaganda against the state” and “calling for the boycott of elections and the removal of the supreme leader.”
According to CHRI, on August 14, judicial authorities in Tehran arrested six prominent lawyers and human rights activists – Arash Keykhosravi (lawyer), Mehdi Mahmoudian (civil activist), Mostafa Nili (lawyer), Leila Heydari (lawyer), Mohammad Reza Faghihi (lawyer), and Maryam Afrafaraz (civil activist) – and confiscated their cell phones and other personal belongings without a warrant. The six were preparing to file a lawsuit in accordance with Article 34 of the constitution against state officials for grossly mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic and negligence, “causing the death of thousands of Iranians.” Heydari was released the following day and Afrafaraz and Faghihi were subsequently released. They were pressured to drop the lawsuit and charged with national security crimes ostensibly relating to previous advocacy work. As of November 18, Keykhosravi, Nili, and Mahmoudian remained in prison.
According to IranWire, on September 1, Ministry of Intelligence agents rearrested journalist and workers’ rights activist Amirabbas Azarmvand on charges of “propaganda against the regime” and transported him to Ward 209 of Evin Prison. Azarmvand worked on economic and labor stories for SMT/Samt newspaper and was previously arrested in 2009, 2017, 2018, and on July 31 for his activism.
Human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh was temporarily released several times during the year on medical furloughs but remained in Qarchak Prison as of year’s end. A revolutionary court sentenced Sotoudeh in 2019 to a cumulative 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for providing legal defense services to women charged with crimes for not wearing a hijab. Sotoudeh was previously arrested in 2010 and pardoned in 2013. In August 2020 she launched a 46-day hunger strike in Evin Prison to protest poor health conditions in prisons.
As of August 31, seven environmentalists affiliated with the now-defunct Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation – Niloufar Bayani, Sepideh Kashani, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, and Morad Tahbaz – remained incarcerated in Evin Prison. According to HRW, in February 2020 a judiciary spokesperson announced a revolutionary court had upheld the prison sentences of eight environmentalists sentenced to between six and 10 years for various “national security” crimes. Authorities arrested the eight environmentalists, including U.S.-United Kingdom-Iranian national Morad Tahbaz, in 2018, and convicted them following an unfair trial in which a judge handed down the sentences in secret, did not allow the defendants access to defense lawyers, and ignored their claims of abuse in detention. The eighth environmentalist, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, was released on medical furlough in March 2020, and Iranian-Canadian national Kavous Sayed Emami died in detention in 2018, reportedly as a result of torture. Sayed Emami died only 18 days after his arrest, supporting the claim that he died as a result of torture. His family’s request for an autopsy was denied.
Hossein Sepanta’s request for parole was repeatedly denied, despite deteriorating health conditions and denial of medical care. He had been imprisoned since 2014 in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz on a 10-year sentence for charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside of the Country
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: In July a New York federal court indicted four Iranian intelligence officials – Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani (aka Verezat Salimi and Haj Ali), Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi, and Omid Noori – for conspiracies related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering. The charges were connected to plotting since at least June 2020 to kidnap U.S.-based journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, to silence her criticism of the Iranian government. It was reported that, as part of the kidnapping plot, one of the intelligence officials researched methods of transporting Alinejad out of the United States for rendition to Iran, including placing her onto a military-style speedboat in New York City and transporting her by sea to Venezuela, whose government had friendly relations with Iran. The announcement stated these intelligence officials directed a “network” that also targeted victims in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States and had conducted similar surveillance of dissidents in those countries.
In August 2020 Reuters reported Ministry of Intelligence officials detained dual-national Jamshid Sharmahd, a member of the promonarchist group Tondar (Thunder) or Kingdom Assembly of Iran, which was based outside the country. While the government did not disclose how or where its officials detained Sharmahd, his son told Radio Free Europe that Sharmahd was likely captured in Dubai and taken to Iran. Sharmahd was accused of responsibility for a deadly 2008 bombing at a religious center in Shiraz and of plotting other attacks. A man who identified himself as Sharmahd appeared on Iranian television blindfolded and “admitted” to providing explosives to attackers in Shiraz. In April Amnesty International described his detention as “akin to an enforced disappearance” and stated he was being held “without trial and access to an independent lawyer of his choosing and consular assistance.”
In November 2020 al-Arabiya reported that Iranian-Swede Habib Asyud (also known as Habib Chaab), the former leader of a separatist group for the ethnic Arab minority in Khuzestan Province called the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), was arrested in Turkey and later resurfaced in Iran under unclear circumstances. Neither Turkey nor Sweden officially commented on Asyud’s case. The Iranian government held ASMLA responsible for a terrorist attack in 2018 on a military parade that killed 25 individuals, including civilians.
In 2019 France-based Iranian activist Ruhollah Zam was abducted from Iraq. Iranian intelligence later took credit for the operation. Zam was executed in Iran in December 2020.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: In July the technology news site ZD Net reported a series of phishing attacks from an Iranian hacker group known as both Charming Kitten and Phosphorus, allegedly affiliated with Iran’s intelligence services. The hackers posed as academics at a United Kingdom university in phishing attacks designed to steal the passwords of experts in Middle Eastern affairs from universities, think tanks, and media. In January 2020 the same group used phishing attacks to target journalists as well as political and human rights activists.
According to international human rights organizations, the Ministry of Intelligence arrested and intimidated BBC employees’ family members in the country, including the elderly. The government froze and seized assets of family members, demoted relatives employed by state-affiliated organizations, and confiscated passports. The government also compelled family members of journalists from other media outlets abroad to defame their relatives on state television. In June the BBC reported their legal representatives had urged the UN Human Rights Council to act on this issue. The same report noted that in a March 2020 internal survey of 102 BBC Persian staff, 71 claimed they had experienced harassment.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports that the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as reprisals against specific individuals located outside the country, such as entering “red notices” for dozens of U.S. officials in 2021, including former U.S. president Donald Trump, through Interpol.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Citizens had limited ability to sue the government and were not able to file lawsuits through the courts against the government for civil or human rights violations.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The constitution allows the government to confiscate property acquired illicitly or in a manner not in conformity with Islamic law. The government appeared to target ethnic and religious minorities in invoking this provision.